What Should I Know About the Canary Islands?


wiseGEEK Writing Contest

The Canary Islands are an archipelago of seven islands off the northwestern coast of Africa. They are an Autonomous Community of Spain best known today as a European tourist destination.

The roughly two million inhabitants, who mostly speak Spanish, are concentrated largely on the biggest islands of Gran Canaria and Tenerife, and in their major cities: Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and Santa Cruz de Tenerife. The archipelago is divided into two provinces on a line between these islands due to an early 20th century rivalry between the two cities that has, to some extent, persisted into the present.

The Canarian economy is driven mainly by tourism and agriculture. Bananas are the largest export, but wine is in some ways a more signature product, with a much longer history. The Euro is the official currency.

Many are surprised to learn that "Las Islas Canarias", as the islands are called in Spanish, were not named after Canary birds. Rather, the birds were named after the islands. "Canaria" is Latin for "of the dogs", leading some to believe that the name originates with Romans impressed by the fierce dogs kept by the inhabitants.

These pre-colonial inhabitants, who came to be known as Guanches, lived at a primitive level of technology. But, due to the rugged terrain of the islands, it took almost a century (1402-1495) for the Spanish Empire to fully conquer them.

Little remains of Guanche culture, but the few phrases, ruins, and recipes attributed to them enjoy a favorable mystique in Canarian culture. An example of this is "gofio", a flour made from toasted grains that is a signature ingredient in many Canarian dishes. It is used primarily as a flavorful thickening agent.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Canary Islands were a major trading hub and stopping point for ships headed to the New World. This claim-to-fame was presaged by Christopher Columbus, who made the island of La Gomera his last port of call before his 1492 voyage.

The prosperity of the exploration era made Canarian ports attractive to privateers and pirates, who raided or besieged them on numerous occasions. Francis Drake failed in a 1595 attack on Las Palmas, but a Dutch fleet sacked and burned the city four years later.

The islands relied on single-crop agriculture for most of their Spanish history, which made them prone to a boom-bust cycle as sugar cane, wine, cochineal (a red dye extracted from a type of cactus-eating insect), and bananas in turn became dominant exports. Today, tourism helps mitigate the islands' exposure to agricultural price volatility, but strains natural resources in some locations.

The chain contains a large number of highly contrasting climactic zones. Depending on the height and orientation of mountain ridges, different parts of the chain are arid or lush. Some areas are covered in nearly perpetual fog, while others could be mistaken for Mars. The highest peaks can receive winter snow, but near sea level the weather is mostly mild or hot year-round. The islands are volcanic in origin, and are still volcanically active.

The highest elevation in Spain is the summit of El Teide, a photogenic cone at the center of Tenerife and the world's third-tallest volcano at 12,198 feet (3,718 m).

The northwestern island of La Palma boasts the lower, though broader, peak of Roque de Los Muchachos, which thanks to its 7,874 ft (2,400 m) elevation and exceptionally clean air is one of the world's premier locations for astronomical observatories.

La Palma is also infamous for the Cumbre Vieja ridge that claims its western half. Some scientists believe that, sometime in the next few thousand years, volcanic activity will cause the ridge to catastrophically collapse into the sea. If this were to happen, a "mega-tsunami" could cross the Atlantic Ocean at supersonic speeds and decimate the eastern coast of the United States. Severe, if lesser destruction might also visit European and South American coastal areas. The exact level of danger is a matter of controversy, but the odds of a worst-case collapse in any given century are probably very low.

In other notorious history, Tenerife's Los Rodeos Airport was, in 1977, the site of the world's worst accident involving airplanes on the ground. At least 560 people were killed when two jumbo jets awaiting take off collided and exploded in dense fog. Most tourists are today flown into the Reina SofĂ­a Airport (usually called Tenerife South), which opened the following year on the sunnier side of the island.

submitted by Mitchell Howe